A 1960 Memphis Scream-iere
The Malco Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee might have seemed an unlikely place to jumpstart a nationwide campaign for Brides Of Dracula, yet this is where the Hammer horror classic had its world premiere, on Friday, June 3, 1960. Three thousand patrons, most of them teen-agers, lined the block around Main and Beale Street, then jammed the house to capacity. Combined efforts of Malco staff and Universal field agents brought them there. Evidence at hand suggests moviegoing reached a state of grace that night. Film history books don’t have a lot to say about that fraternity of men at the vanguard of selling pictures we call classics today. Their bows were taken at ticket booths and deposit windows --- where success counted most. It’s fun, said Malco vice-president Richard Lightman as he coordinated the arrival of Count Dracula in a mule-driven antique hearse he’d found in a Kentucky junkyard. You can’t just take a horror thriller and put it on the screen. This type of picture must be ballyhooed. Lightman understood the need for novelty to merchandise monsters, especially when so many of them competed for a kid’s allowance dollar. The very week he played Brides Of Dracula, Warner’s palace up the street was head-to-head with Circus Of Horrors. Universal's challenge was to differentiate its shocks from those served up by others. Already there had been complaints about the plethora of Dracula themes. Harrison’s Reports rebelled two years before when confronted with the triumvirate of Blood/Return, and Horror Of Dracula, all in simultaneous circulation and causing no end to confusion among patrons and promoters. The average moviegoer, unlike those of us who are in the motion picture business, does not remember the exact title of a picture he or she has seen unless it happened to be a truly exceptional film, said Pete Harrison. There is no telling how many moviegoers who will see one of them will unwittingly pass up either one or both of the other pictures in the mistaken belief that they are one and the same. Now schools were letting out for a 1960 summer that much more saturated with horror subjects, and here was Universal entering yet another contestant in the Dracula sweepstakes. An expert would be needed to sell this one, so they called A-Mike Vogel …
A-Mike (or did they just call him Mike? --- anyway, that’s the unusual way he spelled his first name) was an exhibition genius from way back. He’d conducted the Manager’s Round Table section for The Motion Picture Herald from 1933 to 1942. A-Mike could pound ad copy in his sleep, a dangling cigarette and crumpled hat his trademarks (shown hovered over a typewriter, he looks to have merged Walter Winchell, Billy Wilder, and A Star Is Born’s Matt Libby into one flamboyant package). By 1960, Vogel had his own advertising and exploitation agency in San Francisco. Let’s get in and pitch said he to exhibitors as Universal turned this merchandising whirlwind loose on Brides Of Dracula. Find a newly married couple willing to spend their wedding night in the graveyard! fairly captured the spirit of A-Mike’s strategy. His Dracula Bat-Flying Derby foresaw kid-built kites looming over marquees. Science and shop classes from school would be certain to tie in, promised Vogel. Book merchants were assured that Monarch’s paperback novelization would feature a cover impregnated with special-type perfume. Having acquired my own copy several years ago, I reexamined that just now, only to find it sans odors (other than musty ones owing to encroachments of age). Potential hit singles on the Coral label included Brides Of Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha and Transylvania Polka, complete with David Peel and Yvonne Monlaur on the sleeve (talk about latter-day collectibles!). I’m A Mummy had been Universal’s pop single accompanying a previous Hammer horror they’d distributed, and who better than airwave disc-spinners for getting the word out to kids? Saturation openings were planned for June, and Memphis would lead off. Lightman and the Malco had been angling for this premiere since a proposed bow for The Mummy fell through a year before. Malco’s reputation was built selling chillers. Now they’d establish a template for showmen nationwide to follow.
Getting capacity audiences was tougher by 1960. A barn like the Malco gathered lots of dust among three thousand often empty seats. Only a monster movie will fill the house, said management. One local reporter noted teenagers who flock to these goosebump spectacles with glowing eyes, as if it were something wonderful. News coverage of the Brides Of Dracula premiere revealed a condescending tone typical of mainstream attitudes toward horror films (and their audience). The picture was about what one would expect, sniffed Memphis’ Commercial Appeal. One of those creations which are completely ridiculous but which will quiver your spine anyway if you aren’t careful. Richard Lightman (shown here beside his antique hearse) understood the reality of pushing thrillers --- It has been our experience that with a show of this type, the business just won’t hold up over a week. Long runs were unknown where films like these were concerned. Many "A" venues avoided them altogether. Horror favorites we revere today opened as drive-in second features in many major cities. Hardtops usually burned them off in two or three days max. Lightman’s prophesy would be fulfilled yet again with Brides Of Dracula, as it too would exit after seven days, ceding place to a reissue of The Greatest Show On Earth. Films like Brides Of Dracula were all about heavy exploitation and a quick play-off. Silly stunts such as those recommended by A-Mike Vogel worked best. The Malco wasn’t alone when it came to sidewalk ballyhoo, as evidenced here. Pedestrians barely flinched at the sight of vampires and festooned femmes on various city corners. Such things were more commonplace in those days of busy downtown shopping. A man walking the streets in a barrel, his sign proclaiming I Just Saw Brides Of Dracula and It Scared The Pants Off Me!, heralded Malco's premiere night. "Werewolf whistles" and a Do-It-Yourself Vampire Kit were available in advance of the opening. Accessories included two sharpened stakes, a small wooden mallet, a silver bullet, garlic cloves, and wolfbane, all for a quarter.
The stage show was pushed hardest. Advertising director Watson Davis’ efforts were abetted by Universal "technical expert" Heidi Erich, a self-proclaimed descendent of Elizabeth Bathory, history’s only legally convicted vampire (I Googled her, and yes, Bathory was a notorious vampiress during the 1500’s). Members of the Memphis Little Theatre would perform a ritual of unholy matrimony wherein assorted girls were accompanied down the aisles by a German band (shown here), while the Malco’s mighty Wurlitzer rose up from below floor level to herald the arrival of Dracula himself. Brides inclined to resist were tied to props of various medieval torture instruments to await the ceremony, while a "heckler" plant in the audience was dragged from his seat and beheaded on a guillotine to college glee club accompaniment. Ushers working in the guise of Frankenstein, Quasimodo, and the Wolf Man doubled as stage performers (a complete script of the pageant was made available to exhibitors wishing to stage their own effort). The Vampire Gift Shoppe shown here was sold out an hour before the premiere (that’s theatre manager Elton Holland at left and Watson Davis on the right). Davis specialized in horror film promotion (he constructed a twenty-foot high Tyrannosaurus Rex to promote the Malco's subsequent booking of Dinosaurus), and would later assume hosting duties for WHBQ’s Fantastic Features, wherein he was billed as Sivad. That series of Memphis TV horrors lasted from 1962 into the seventies, and made Davis a legendary local figure. The Malco thrives to this day, albeit restored to its original name, The Orpheum, which was given birth in 1928 as a vaudeville and variety site. Now a performing arts center, the venerable house hosts concerts and special events. Friend of the Greenbriar John Beifuss, Jr., curator of that outstanding website, The Bloodshot Eye, provided much background on the Malco and Memphis environs (Thanks, John!).
UPDATE (9-17-07): Some interesting financial info on the 1966 combo reissue of Brides Of Dracula with King Kong vs. Godzilla. Brides took $130,000 in domestic rentals and Kong brought $161,000 (the latter had earned $1.219 million in domestic rentals during its initial 1963 release). I'd suspect the reissue was profitable as it's doubtful Universal made new 35mm prints of either feature. As far as I know, there was no combo pressbook prepared and no new campaign material.